Next up in our December event spotlight, we’re pleased to feature fiction writer Jennifer Bannan, who will be reading at Six Impossible Things for Breakfast, and who may have invented a wonderful new cocktail below.
Why do you write about food?
I’m interested in consuming as a concept. I’m fascinated by the way, for example, people in this culture are more often referred to as consumers than as citizens. Food is an easy, direct route to thinking about consuming. Or over-consuming, as in the case of the story I’ll be reading. And food is chock full of sensory power, which all writers want to include in their work.
What’s the strangest meal you’ve ever had?
I grew up in Miami and my boyfriend’s family was Cuban. His mom wanted to cook a traditional Thanksgiving dinner because my boyfriend had joined my family for the holiday and he loved the food so much. I gave her as much information as my mom passed on, but it must have seemed lacking to her. She shoved a bunch of garlic cloves and lemon rind under the skin of the bird, and the stuffing was also one of the most garlicky, lemony things I’ve ever eaten. My boyfriend was mortified, even angry at her, and while I thought it was strange for sure, it was really very delicious.
If someone invented a cocktail named after you, what would it include?
The Jennifer Bannan would mix the buzzy effects of a strong cup of espresso with the mellowing effects of a nice Pinot Noir with the cozy warming effects of a Manhattan. I guess this shows that I’m more interested in the after-effects than the initial flavor.
Jennifer Bannan is the author of short story collection Inventing Victor, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2003. Her publications include work in ACM, Kenyon Review online, Passages North, the Autumn House 2011 fiction anthology, “Keeping the Wolves at Bay” and a story forthcoming in theChicago Quarterly Review. She received her MFA at the University of Pittsburgh in 2014 and is at work on a novel, Welcome to Kindness.
Today we’re pleased to introduce Pittsburgh poet Daniel Shapiro, who will be kicking things off at our December reading, Six Impossible Things for Breakfast. We asked Shapiro to tell us a little bit about himself, Acquired Taste style.
Why do you write about food?
I haven’t written about food all that much, but I like to do it because it’s not a poetry topic that has been done to death. It’s not break-ups or trees. I typically seek out offbeat themes, odd juxtapositions of words, etc., and food lends itself to these pursuits.
What’s the strangest meal you’ve ever had?
The strangest meal I’ve ever had remains the cheese fish they used to serve at my middle school. Most likely, it was accompanied by the overcooked stalks of broccoli. It consisted of a square, fried piece of what was said to be fish, and the cheese–not unlike Velveeta–was apparently injected into it, a la creme filling into a Twinkie. My friends and I have turned cheese fish into a mythical monster, of sorts, and I hope to have a cheese fish poem available for the reading.
If someone invented a cocktail named The Daniel Shapiro, what would it include?
It would consist of the most expensive, most rare bourbon available and nothing else. It would be the Sasquatch of drinks, putting Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year to shame, causing riots, making people forget about the Tickle Me Elmo massacres of old.
You can read some of Shapiro’s poetry, and even get a taste of him reading it, at Hermeneutic Chaos. If you like the sound of his voice, or just want to hear more about the mythic cheese fish, join us next week at Classic Lines bookstore for Six Impossible Things for Breakfast.
Daniel Shapiro is the author of How the Potato Chip Was Invented(sunnyoutside press, 2013), a collection of celebrity-centered poems. He is a special education teacher who lives in Pittsburgh. He interviews other poets while subliminally promoting his own work at Little Myths.
On this Sunday after Thanksgiving for our American readers (hi readers from Brazil and South Korea! You can join in, too), we’re reflecting on the holidays. Specifically, on what’s fallen away from your holidays. Most families have some kind of tradition, whether it’s Midnight Mass or a very particular kind of green bean casserole.
But they don’t always endure. What traditions have gone by the wayside in your family? Maybe you’ve opted out of turkey and in to enchiladas for Thanksgiving. Maybe after Pops died, the family didn’t get together for dinner any more. Tell us about the traditions that fell away.
Come up with something great? Share it in the comments below—it just might become our next post.
Pink meat pulls and stretches, contoured over protruding, blunt-tipped ribs; forming a fleshy marbled mass just above the bony sternum. The first rib is hooked through with a nail, leaving the entire slab of meat to hang heavy from the wood-paneled kitchen wall. Below it, dressed fowl with puffed chests and eyes outlined in crimson are stacked—no, nestled—their necks uniformly limp, dangling from the elevated bronze serving tray. In the foreground, five pears at varying stages of ripeness are splayed, almost an afterthought, like the oranges stacked in the background, toppling from the mouth of a copper pot. Fruit here is secondary; a rushed addition to the table.
Brightly colored food trucks line the exterior of Farragut Square, where men and women in tidy suits wait for falafel and tacos and too-sweet smoothies. It’s a series rapid exchanges. Cash and cards for white paper bags and Styrofoam boxes slick with grease. Garbage cans overflow with half-eaten meals and spotted napkins. A man in Capitals jersey picks through the array. The jersey has a cat scratch-style cut—a three-clawed slash, slash, slash—across the left shoulder. He finally chooses an apple, whole but bruised, and delicately wraps it in the folds of a plastic bag for later.
Iridescent pods are suspended from leafy branches, each member-orb covered in a delicate translucent film that contains the rich, red juice. Red currants, as these are, have a bite that goes from tart to sweet. Close by on the wooden butcher’s block is a bundle of artichokes painted with strokes that fade from violet to green to white. Their stalks cut at an angle. Their buds tight.
The voices of children, five or six maybe, transmit over my car radio. They’re telling me facts I’ve heard before, but these voices make me want to listen. “One in five children in the US struggle with hunger.” One voice, a boy’s soft voice, says: “My teacher tells me I can grow up to be anything I want. I want to be someone who doesn’t go to bed hungry.” I think of my favorite photo of my baby brother; he’s chubby-faced with a piece of chocolate cake (his first) smeared across his mouth and cheeks, and he is wholly gleeful. He’s never—we’ve never—gone to sleep hungry in our lives. I wipe my eyes in the rearview and promise this year to actually collect some cans or some small thing.
The table heaves under the weight of the spread: the bowl of golden apples, spiraled citrus peels, bites of bread torn from the loaf, a whole roasted chicken, briney olives, and, of course, the peacock pie. Part savory, part pastry, all pageantry—it’s a minced meat pie decorated with the head and neck (skewered through with a stick) and some of the shorter tail feathers. The pastry serves as a post-mortem torso; a darkly humorous delicacy.
On the steps of the National Gallery of Art, a woman clutches a cardboard sign, scrawled over with black Sharpie marker. “Need Money 4Food. Baby on the Way.” The hood of her jacket is pulled tight around her face, the drawstrings forming a loopy bow right beneath her chin. One hand rests on her swollen belly. “Anything—any little bit—helps,” the woman murmurs over and over. She and her unborn child starving in the land of plenty.
Ashlie Stevens is a freelance food and arts writer from Louisville, Kentucky. Her work has been featured in the Atlantic’s CityLab, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, and Hyperallergic. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Nonfiction Writing at the University of Kentucky. You can follow her on Twitter at @AshlieD_Stevens.
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
The chocolate frogs of the wizarding world. The ambrosia drunk in the cloud-palaces of Mount Olympus. Giant peaches and enormous beanstalks and more!
From Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage to Alice’s “eat me” currant cake, food casts many a magic spell. Food is larger than life, and its impact on our lives often feels strange, even legendary. Is it any wonder we spin stories endowing food with weird and wonderful powers?
As winter descends into a glittering world around us, join Acquired Taste in a celebration of the weird, mythic, and magical side of food.
Our next event, Six Impossible Things for Breakfast, (named in honor of a bastion of weird food scenes, Alice Through the Looking Glass), will be held on Thursday, Dec. 10th, at 7pm, and will feature readings from Jennifer Bannan, Claire Burgess, and Daniel M. Shapiro. We’ll be hosted by Classic Lines bookstore in Squirrel Hill, and Marissa is planning to bake up plenty of strange cookies for the occasion.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be spotlighting each of our upcoming readers here on the blog, to whet your appetite for the strange and lovely feast to come!
For more information on the event, visit our Facebook page, or contact organizer Marissa Landrigan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Who the heck are we anyway? Why are we doing this project? I knew my answers (and maybe I’ll share them with you someday), but I didn’t know what Marissa Landrigan, the brain behind this whole business, would say to those questions. So I asked her over Gchat, because we’re modern ladies. What follows is an ever-so-slightly edited version of our conversation.
Marissa: Pretty good! I don’t teach on Thursdays, so they are among my favorite days. [RKC edit: Yes, students—teachers love days off as much as you do.]
Robyn: So, I know we talked about this a little bit after the last (fabulous!) reading packed with pawpaws, but how did you decide to start up Acquired Taste?
Marissa: When I was working on my book, a memoir about eating, sustainable food production, and ethics, I had a hard time figuring out where my writing fit into the larger field; some parts felt too topical, or journalistic, for traditional literary publications, and some parts felt too creative or personal for glossy food publications.
In my searches, though, I found a lot of other writers who were doing similar things, blending memoir with larger cultural analysis — like Bich Minh Nguyen‘s Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, or Diana Abu-Jaber‘s The Language of Baklava. Once I started looking for it, I found literary food writing in lots of places, from lots of writers and I wanted to see it gathered in one place, and given the attention I thought it deserved.
Robyn: Why a reading series?
Marissa: Honestly, I think I picked a reading series because I thought starting small and local would be easier (I now scoff at my younger self for thinking running a reading series is easy). But it seemed manageable to book a local venue, find three or four readers, and make a flyer.
The first event really didn’t have much more planning than that. But it was really fun, and we had a great turn-out, and a number of people in the audience that first night told me they did the same kind of writing, so it picked up its own momentum.
Robyn: You always have such a varied lineup. Lots of genres, local and national writers—I was struck by that the first time I went to a reading.
Marissa: One of my favorite things has been the blend of genres. Before the reading series, I was mostly familiar with nonfiction food writing (since that’s the genre I work in) but our first event had Dave Housley of Barrelhouse reading from his hilarious short story collection Commercial Fiction, and I realized how much eating and drinking were subjects in the fiction I loved. And I don’t think I’ve met a single poet since who, when I mention the reading series, tells me they have loads of poetry about food.
I mean, of course they do! Food and drink are so sensual, so evocative, so full of figurative potential.
Robyn: Absolutely. We devour lots of things, metaphorically and literally. (Which reminds me of my writerly pet peeve: devouring books. Why do we all devour them? Can we, like, do some other verb with them? Not very creative, us readers and writers.)
Marissa: So true! It’s probably because eating is the most intimate physical thing most of us can come up with. Making love to books would probably just be weird.
Robyn: Yeah, the attraction just isn’t there…
But to swing back to a reasonable line of discussion…that makes me think of writing cliches, specifically food writing cliches. You’ve mentioned the “cooking with grandma” trope to me before. What other stories do you come across pretty frequently? And/or maybe you can think of some great examples of stories that subvert them?
Marissa: Lots of holiday meals — everyone gathered around the Thanksgiving table, that kind of thing. I love exploring traditions, but I’m just as (if not more) curious about the mundane, every day meals we value.
Basically anything where food is just sexy or orgasmic — a date where the meal is dripping with innuendo. Food is incredibly sexy, I get it, but it’s too obvious or on the nose.
Robyn: Yes! I love her poetry. And not just because she’s a very cool person.
Marissa: And Jennifer Jackson Berry (who will read at the February AcqTaste event) has these amazing poems where she uses food as a sexual metaphor AND makes fun of using food as a sexual metaphor in “Fat Girl Confuses Food and Sex, Again.”
Robyn: That sounds like such a fun take on it. Can’t wait for that reading.
That’s something I really appreciate about this series—how it brings people together, almost like a meal.
You’re basically saying, “Here, try this new author!” like you’d offer a spoonful of a new food. Somehow, talking about food in a big group is more intimate than just talking about writing or stories or other topics at readings. Food is so universal and so endless in its variety for discussion, art, appreciation…
Marissa: Once you get people talking about food, it’s hard to stop. It sounds obvious, but we all have food stories. Eating and drinking is something we all have in common, whatever restrictions, difficulties, painful memories, etc. we may have associated with meals.
And food is so inherently communal. I remember this moment from our January 2015 reading — it was immediately post-holidays, and Pittsburgh was under three feet of snow or something, and there we were, all cozy and warm in East End Book Exchange, laughing and talking about food. It was so touching. I felt so close to everyone, like we had really shared something.
Robyn: Did you anticipate that kind of response when you started the series?
Marissa: I had seen that kind of coming-together a lot while I was researching the book. Anywhere I went (to visit farms or markets, to go hunting, etc.) when I told people I was writing a book about food, especially about vegetarianism, people couldn’t resist sharing their own stories. When they had been a vegetarian, the first time the remembered figuring out that their food was a dead animal, how much they love catching and frying fish…anything.
But I don’t think I anticipated the enormous variety of food stories I’d get to hear in the reading series.
Nor do I think I fully understood how connected food would be to so many other things: grief and loss, marriage, parenthood, religion, sexual identity, politics…The way food webs out to touch so many other subjects blows my mind.
Robyn: Yes! It can be a vehicle for almost anything, any story.
What do you find hardest in writing about food?
*toughest (heh). There are so many puns to be made around food.
Marissa: Bringing food to life on the page with description is surprisingly difficult; the subject is rich with sensory detail, for sure, but it’s hard to pull it off without resorting to cliche (juices dripping from your fingers, flavors bursting, etc.).
Description is also hard because people experience food so differently. For instance, I think eggplant is utterly disgusting, so when I write about it, it’s slimy, bitter, and tastes like the ground it should stay in. But some people (probably?) love eggplant!
So I’ve got to describe it in a way that sounds as disgusting as it tastes to me when a lot of people don’t think it’s disgusting at all.
Robyn: I suppose really great writing makes you actually consider something you love as disgusting.
(I too am not a big fan of eggplant, for the record.) Writers out there—new challenge: make us love eggplant.
Marissa: I really like playing with that line, too — it’s fun to talk about how delicious chicken is, and then go into a really in-depth discussion of chicken houses and factory slaughter lines and chicken byproduct meal and pink slime. Working up the reader’s appetite, and then blindside them with something gross is fun. And kind of mean.
Robyn: I’m all about the gross out.
[RKC edit: You almost got a picture of maggots eating a opossum carcass here. I showed some restraint; you’re welcome.]
Marissa: If someone could write about eggplant (or mushrooms, which I also really don’t like) in a way that makes my mouth water, I would totally try it again. Good writing is powerful.
Robyn: Are mushrooms a texture thing? I feel like that’s most people’s beef with shrooms. They’re an oddly complicated bite.
Marissa: Totally textural for me. I’m super sensitive about food texture. I also don’t love hummus the way most people do because I can’t deal with the texture. Peaches and pears bother me too.
Robyn: Favorite texture?
Marissa: I’m a big fan of soups, stews, and sauces, so I guess that would make my favorite texture creamy: a thick beef stew broth, a smooth potato leek soup, a rich Alfredo.
I love crunch, too, in the right context: crispy bacon, really fresh green beans or sugar snap peas, homemade vanilla and cranberry granola.
I’m such a picky eater, and was so much worse as a kid. My mom thinks it’s hilarious that I’m a food writer now because of how much I refused to eat as a child. I was a terrible cook when I was younger, too.
Robyn: Maybe that pickiness is what gave you your attention to detail!
Marissa: I did have to spend a lot of time explaining why there was just no way I was going to finish all the zucchini on my plate.
Robyn: How did you end up getting better at cooking? That seems to be a major young adult hurdle for lots of people.
Marissa: Starting to eat meat again, after seven years as a vegetarian, is what finally forced me to become a better cook. As a vegetarian, and a picky one, I was so lazy: I bought tons of boxes of fake meat products, boxes of rice, couscous, and macaroni and cheese, and just ate a ton of processed, pre-made food.
Robyn: The boxed stuff can take away some of that uncertainty. Meat can be really hard to cook properly. When I worked at meat markets in high school and college, people were always asking me questions. Handling, cutting, temperatures…
Marissa: Exactly! Meat has so many questions you HAVE to answer correctly when you’re cooking. When I decided to start eating meat again, I realized I had no idea what I was doing — I had never cooked it for myself, as an adult. And yes, because of food safety concerns, I really had to get it right. So I finally started using cookbooks and researching recipes and reading food blogs, even watching cooking shows (Alton Brown is my #1 Celebrity Chef Crush) to figure it out.
Robyn: #AB4life. He’s got some great videos about cooking steak. Gordon Ramsay, too.
And with meat: screwing up can be expensive.
Marissa: Definitely. And I was buying all my meat and produce from local sources, often organic, grass-fed, etc. so I was spending more on it, and really didn’t want to screw it up.
And once I started spending that much time and effort on cooking, I realized I actually really liked doing it. For me, cooking is incredibly fun — like a challenge, a puzzle to figure out as you go — and super relaxing. Focused and meditative.
Are you a stick to the recipe kind of person? Or are you more my style, where lemon juice can be swapped for lime depending on my mood? And cayenne goes on basically everything savory.
Marissa: Riffing on a recipe is the best, isn’t it?
Robyn: I love it. It’s the closest I get to being a jazz musician.
But never with baking. That shit’s chemistry, and I don’t fuck around with that.
Marissa: My favorite part of learning to cook has been getting good enough at it that I can do that. Because, like a good jazz musician, you have to understand the basics in order to improvise with them. Before I understood the basics, I would make these crazy mistakes — once, I tried to swap out sweet potatoes for potatoes in a quiche recipe, which, of course, dramatically changed the flavor — but now that I know what different ingredients are doing in a recipe, I know how to play around with them.
Robyn: Any potato’s a good potato in my book.
Marissa: I even improvise with baked goods now! I’ve learned a lot of substitutes by following vegan and gluten-free baking recipes (or trying to bake without eggs or milk in the house). Proportions are still really important, but I use Greek yogurt in place of oil or butter a lot.
Robyn: Yeah, the proportions are my issue. I’m very much an “eyeball it” kind of cook, so I’m already heaping that tablespoon rather than leveling it.
What’s your worst kitchen disaster? Have you ever totally botched a meal?
Marissa: Oh, so many times.
That sweet potato quiche was a bad one — it was supposed to be potatoes, leeks, and white cheddar sauce, I think, and for some reason I decided to use sweet potatoes, leeks, and orange cheddar, and it was just…confused.
Robyn: Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I suppose.
In leek-related news: I misheard one of Simran Sethi’s quotes about wheat in our Q&A with her and swapped it in for leeks. It made absolutely no sense in the context.
Marissa: Ha! Yeah, I don’t imagine leeks are quite as integral a part of the global food supply.
Robyn: But maybe they should be.
Marissa: I once tried to bake a French chocolate torte, which needed espresso. I didn’t have any so I just used water, and the end result was about half an inch thick and rock solid.
Robyn: Oh no!
I wonder what changed the texture so much? Espresso isn’t much more than water.
Marissa: Ah, here’s the key: I used HOT water, because I thought, “Hey, espresso would be hot,” (though I’m sure the recipe must have said cooled espresso) and it somehow combined with the flour to make a paste in the dough.
I was about 13 — old enough to have known better, but not so old as to be completely embarrassed by that one.
Robyn: You were making French desserts at 13? That sounds pretty advanced and fancy to me.
Though I have never made a torte, so maybe I am totally off-base here.
Marissa: It was a homework assignment for my French class. I got a zero — I at least knew enough to trash it.
Robyn: Awww haha.
I don’t ever remember cooking things for German class. And our version of home ec included frying donuts out of pre-packaged dough.
Not particularly ambitious curriculum, w/r/t food back home.
Marissa: When I think about it, it does seem a little suspect — this was public school. What if my family couldn’t afford chocolate and espresso and other fancies?
Robyn: Right. I know my house certainly didn’t has espresso machinery.
(Though it does now—such a great appliance.)
Also, food processors. How did I never have a food processor before?
Marissa: Food processors are the best! We have a big one (gazpacho size) and a little one (salsa size).
The one kitchen appliance I don’t have that I wish I did is a stand mixer. I would make homemade bread, and baked good so much more often.
Or so I like to imagine.
Robyn: Oh ambition!
So what are you most excited about with the anthology? We’ve been getting some really great submissions.
Marissa: I’m super excited about the variety of styles we’re seeing — personal essays, meditations on culture, hybrid forms, graphic work. When I think about seeing such a broad range of approaches to food gathered in one place, it makes me really happy.
There’s so much promise and potential in the genre, and I think the anthology will be a great preview of that possibility.
Oh my, that was very unintentionally alliterative.
Robyn: Your words just sing!
On my dream list for the anthology: I’d love to see somebody do an ode to Kraft singles American cheese. Or some other decidedly non-gourmet foodstuff.
Marissa: Oh man, I love those Kraft singles. I will eat them by themselves, as a snack.
Robyn: I nibble on them bit by bit like a little mouse.
Robyn: So delightfully American and unsophisticated.
Marissa: I would love to see a celebration of non-gourmet foodstuffs. And humor! Food can be hilarious.
Robyn: There you have it, readers. Get to it!
I suppose I should let you get on with your non-teaching day. Anything else you’d like to say, request, espouse, complain about?
Marissa: Just one more thing: I really want an incredibly diverse list of contributors. Culture, race, gender, body type can all dramatically change your relationship to food, and I want lots and lots of different experiences represented.
Robyn: Amen to that, co-editor.
There’s so much food in the world! And people!
Marissa: *Insert food pun here!*
Let’s definitely work on making a list of non-eating words for how much we want to read these submissions, for sure. ☺
Robyn: I’m so excited to snort them.
Marissa: Hahaha perfect.
Robyn: And with that, I think we’re good. Thanks for your time inside on such a nice day.
Marissa: Thank you! This was great.
We hope you enjoyed that peek into the minds behind Acquired Taste. There’s still time to submit to the anthology or pitch us a blog post. Send your ideas to acqtaste[at]gmail[dot]com.